Sheffield research institute aims to bring hope to patients

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Behind a shiny glass door, a team of scientists in pristine white coats carefully take out lab samples, and methodically slide them under the microscope.

These scientists make up the heart of the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN).

SITraN is a unique research facility dedicated to finding causes and developing treatments for Motor Neurone Diseases (MND) and related neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

In the UK, over 5,000 people suffer from MND, an incurable disease that may leave patients unable to walk, talk, eat or even breathe.

The centre was established four years ago, when founder Professor Dame Pamela Shaw, Director of SITraN, was asked by one of her patients what she would do if she was given £20 million to find a cure for MND.

Her answer was that she would build a dedicated research institute, with clinicians and scientists working under the same roof – and SITraN was born.

And now, as it celebrates its fourth anniversary since being launched by Her Majesty the Queen in November 2010, SITraN has grown into a world-leading research centre for neurodegenerative disorders.

One of its key successes has been to make considerable progress towards new therapy development, including gene therapy research that may soon lead to the development of new treatments for ALS, the most common form of MND which kicked off the ice bucket fundraising challenge earlier this year.

Until now, most available treatments and drug trials across the world have failed to halt the progression of ALS.

SITraN’s work hopes to change that.

Professor Mimoun Azzouz, leading Gene Therapy Expert, said: “This pioneering project has the potential to deliver the first meaningful neuroprotective therapy for MND, offering a real beacon of hope for patients.”

SITraN is also discovering and creating innovative practical programs to improve the lives of those with MND.

Many patients develop weak neck muscles, leading to pain and restricted movement.

A comfortable head support would help to alleviate these problems; however current head support collars on the market do little to help.

SITraN’s new head support collar, developed in the ‘Head Up’ project, was created in collaboration with MND patients, and aims to improve their lives.

Other practical ways of improving the lives of MND patients include a telehealth app developed by SITraN which could revolutionise the way MND patients are cared for.

As SITraN continues to make progress on all fronts, Professor Shaw also anticipates that the institute will raise awareness for the disease, and continue to bring new hope to patients, both in the UK and around the world.

“If ever a disease deserved to have resources thrown at it it’s MND, because the tools of science are there to solve it if sufficient resources can be harnessed,” said Professor Shaw.

“Just look at diseases like HIV, which were once huge, but governments got behind it and lobbied very hard.

“Hopefully, one day, the same will happen for MND.”

MND: The facts of the disease

n MND is a progressive disease that attacks motor neurones, or nerves, in the brain and spinal cord.
n It can affect any adult at any age, although most people diagnosed with the disease are over 40.
n The disease affects nearly twice as many men as women.

n Approximately two in every 100,000 people are diagnosed with the condition. It is typically fatal within two to five years of symptom onset. 
n MND leaves people unable to walk, talk or feed themselves, but the intellect and the senses usually remain unaffected.

n Some MNDs are inherited, but the causes of most MNDs are not known

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